Directors: Kenji Misumi, Kazuo Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Kazuo Ikehiro, Akira Inoue, Satsuo Yamamoto, Kihachi Okamoto, Shintarô Katsu
Screenplay: Minoru Inuzuka and others
Based on a Character and Stories by: Kan Shimozawa
Starring: Shintarô Katsu
Running Time: Various, but generally between 80-90 minutes
BBFC Certificate: 15
I have a confession I must make before starting this review. I haven’t actually got through Criterion’s entire box set of Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman films yet. Reviewing something without having seen it all the way through is generally considered a criminal act for an honest film critic like myself. However, when faced with 25 films to watch on top of the usual pile of screeners I’m obliged to get through for the site, along with Christmas around the corner, I simply couldn’t manage it in any sensible length of time. So I made a Herculean effort to blitz through half the set (12 films) in time to get a review up before Christmas, so that my lovely friends at Criterion could get a bit of extra publicity for the set in time for seasonal shopping. Once I do get through the rest of the films I hope to update this review accordingly though.
Confession out of the way, let’s get to the matter at hand.
The character of Zatoichi had humble origins in a short story by Kan Shimozawa called ‘The Tale of Zatoichi’. However, Daiei Film studios and the actor Shintaro Katsu developed him into the hero of a series of hugely successful films. Within the space of 11 years, a whopping 25 films were made, all starring Katsu but with a variety of writers and directors (and a change of studios towards the end too). Katsu even returned to the role one more time in 1989 for ‘Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally’ and there have been a few remakes and reboots since too, most notably Takeshi Kitano’s excellent and bloody recreation in 2003’s Zatoichi. Criterion’s handsome Blu-Ray set focuses on the first ‘wave’ of Zatoichi films, from 1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi, to 1973’s Zatoichi and the Fugitives.
I won’t describe the plot of every single ‘episode’ as this review would become unwieldy. In general, however, the films follow the adventures of the blind masseuse Ichi (Shintarô Katsu – the ‘Zato’ of the title and his nickname refers to his official rank within the guild of blind men). He travels the roads of Japan looking for work and regularly wanders into trouble. He’s adept at getting out of it though due to his sharp wit and lightning fast sword technique that belies his lack of sight. These skills, along with his penchant for gambling, earn him quite a reputation and he ends up with a great many enemies and money on his head.
Ichi used to be a yakuza himself in his youth, but left and deeply regrets what he did during that time. This guilt fuels his inability to let injustice go unpunished. So in each episode he comes across an innocent party who has been wronged and feels driven by a desire to make things right to settle his tormented mind. He also takes great pleasure in getting his own back on anyone who exploits his disability for their own benefit.
The majority of the films follow this formula, although they often find their own slight spin on it. A couple of standout episodes throw something completely different into the mix, such as Fight, Zatoichi Fight which sees Ichi end up as the guardian of a baby (bringing to mind the later Lone Wolf and Cub series which starred Katsu’s brother Tomisaburo Wakayama). This repetition of structure could be called lazy and might put some off purchasing and watching the entire set, but somehow it works. It feels like watching a TV series when you chain watch the films as I did. I don’t mean the modern style of HBO-esque series where there’s a long story (or several) that weave through all the episodes. The Zatoichi films have some slight reoccurring threads, but by and large it follows the classic style of series where each episode is a standalone story. Like the best classic TV series then, pleasure is drawn from wondering what mess Ichi is going to get into this time and how he’s going to get out of it. The familiarity becomes part of the charm and it means any slightly fresh elements stand out.
What also keeps you watching is how remarkably consistent the films are. Admittedly I’ve not watched all 25 yet, but every single one I’ve seen so far has been good. Some are better than others, but none have been even close to what you’d call poor and several are worthy of a 4 star rating or higher.
Possibly the greatest asset to the series, and one of the main reasons it’s so consistent, is its central character and its star Shintarô Katsu. He’s so much fun to watch as he outsmarts everyone who tries to get one over on him. On top of his charisma though, Katsu helps elevate the fairly straightforward material to another level through subtly playing on the guilt and regrets of his character. Although most of the films are very enjoyable as lightly comic action films, they often end with an air of melancholy or bitterness, and how Katsu plays the situations is part of how this is achieved. His Ichi is a scruffy, homely type in his everyday guise, but snaps into swift and graceful action when threatened and has an air of solemn authority when situations require. He’s a wonderful character and the saga gives him surprising depth, even though his backstory is largely only hinted at.
Possibly my favourite episode so far is the last one I watched, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. It has a nice balance of brutal violence and moving drama. It contains possibly the series’ most poignant moment too, where a girl who got injured in the aftermath of one of Ichi’s fights says “thank you” after the swordsman finds her medicine and helps nurse her back to health. Feeling guilty for why she was ill in the first place, he doesn’t know how to respond and struggles to hold back the tears before running outside and banging his head on a post. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but Katsu and director Kenji Misumi turn it into an incredibly touching moment. Misumi (who also directed the first episode) is responsible for most of the more emotionally satisfying, slower paced but elegantly presented episodes.
The films are all finely crafted from a technical perspective too. With several different directors and cinematographers working on them, there are subtle variations in style and approach, but largely they all look very nice. Japanese films of the era are often very carefully put together as they had master craftsmen working in specific fields in a well-oiled studio system, and these are no different. The first two films are in black and white, which sets them apart from the rest and there’s nice use of colour in many of those that followed. Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword stood out as two of the more stylised episodes, where the others are largely more classically composed and constructed.
Being samurai films, there is some action too. Those looking for a series to rival Lone Wolf and Cub might be disappointed though as this is largely bloodless, other than a few splashes here and there and the odd episode (particularly Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold) where the violence is a bit more brutal. There’s a fair amount of swordplay throughout the series though, even if there isn’t blood gushing across the screen, so action fans will enjoy themselves. The sword fights are generally well choreographed too, with Katsu proving to be a fast and fluid mover, despite his robust frame. I think it’s the character, drama and humour that keeps you most engaged though.
Overall then it’s a wonderful series of films. An impressive level of quality is sustained throughout the set and there’s fun to be had in each and every episode. With a charismatic and nuanced lead performance anchoring proceedings and some fine technical craftsmanship, it’s more than just a bit of fun too. It’s a fantastic set and I can’t wait to finish it.
Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The restorations are fantastic, with each and every film looking richly detailed, clean and natural. Audio is rich and clean too.
Includes 25 Films:
– THE TALE OF ZATOICHI
– THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES
– NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI
– ZATOICHI THE FUGITIVE
– ZATOICHI ON THE ROAD
– ZATOICHI AND THE CHEST OF GOLD
– ZATOICHI’S FLASHING SWORD
– FIGHT, ZATOICHI, FIGHT
– ADVENTURES OF ZATOICHI
– ZATOICHI’S REVENGE
– ZATOICHI AND THE DOOMED MAN
– ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT
– ZATOICHI’S VENGEANCE
– ZATOICHI’S PILGRIMAGE
– ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD
– ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW
– ZATOICHI CHALLENGED
– ZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES
– SAMARITAN ZATOICHI
– ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO
– ZATOICHI GOES TO THE FIRE FESTIVAL
– ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN
– ZATOICHI AT LARGE
– ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION
– ZATOICHI’S CONSPIRACY
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
– New digital restorations of all twenty-five films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
– The Blind Swordsman, a 1978 documentary about Zatoichi portrayer and filmmaker Shintaro Katsu, along with a new interview with its director, John Nathan
– New Interview with Asian-film critic Tony Rayns
– New English Subtitles
A book featuring –
– An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
– Synopses of the films by critic, novelist and musician Chris D.
– The Tale of Zatoichi, the original short story by Kan Shimozawa
– Twenty-five illustrations inspired by the films, by twenty-five different artists
It’s not a huge amount of extra material, particularly for such a large box set, but, as ever with Criterion, everything here is worthwhile and will greatly enrich your appreciation of the films. Plus, when you’re getting so many decent films in one package, what more do you need?